Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending

Generally I’m not interested in what either critics or sales figures say about a novel. Still, the Booker Prize was once won by one of the books I have read several times (and hopefully will again one day), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. When the 2011 winner was announced last October, I realized I had quite a few old books in my Kindle to take with me to Scotland (courtesy of their being out of copyright and the Gutenberg project), but almost none that was published during my life and that I hadn’t read yet. I found a short synopsis somewhere, and since that looked reasonably promising, I bought the book.

Like Ut og stjæle hester some years ago, it’s narrated by a character old enough to be in retirement. Both the books have only a middling appeal to me as far as the story goes, the Norwegian one dealing too much with childhood and the English one too much with the male-female relationship (though admittedly Barnes – or his character – is as cynical about women as Kingsley Amis was). Yet both make up for this by being told in a beautifully calm, unhurried, sedate manner – and by using the story as a skeleton upon which to hang many small pertinent observations. In a manner of speaking, it was not the happenings, but the commentary that really appealed to me.

Of course, most of these observations are either too long or too related to their imminent context to be used as quotations. Nevertheless, I did write down to my quotebook as many as seven. Here they are (not in the order in which they appear in the book):

This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

So my emotions as they actually are don’t concern her. She prefers to assume that I have certain feelings and operate according to that assumption.

No: I exaggerate, I misrepresent. [….] Living alone has its moments of self-pity and paranoia.

But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives – then I plead guilty.

The less time there remains in your life, the less you want to waste it. That’s logical, isn’t it? Though how you use the saved-up hours … well, that’s another thing you probably wouldn’t have predicted in youth. For instance, I spend a lot of time clearing things up – and I’m not even a messy person. [….] I’ve achieved a state of peaceableness, even peacefulness. Because I get on with things. I don’t like mess, and I don’t like leaving a mess.

(First published on Blogger in January ’12.)



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